Sobering day for Irish women’s team as harsh reality strikes in Six Nations opener but signs were there

Welsh set-up was a mess but now they have shown way for struggling Ireland

Ireland's Nichola Fryday is tackled by Wales' Georgia Evans during the TikTok Six Nations clash at Cardiff Arms Park. Photo: Mark Lewis/Sportsfile

Sineád Kissane

Ireland head coach Greg McWilliams struggled to hold back the tears after he came into the media centre at Cardiff Arms Park last night following his team’s 31-5 defeat.

This was a sobering day. For the second year in a row, Ireland lost their opening game of the Women’s Six Nations to Wales, but the manner of the defeat made this a bigger setback than last year’s loss. Ireland were overpowered and bullied by a dominant and resurgent Wales team.

There now isn’t just a gap between the two big hitters, England and France, as yesterday showed a distance has also opened between Ireland and Wales.

After the game, the Ireland players gathered around each other and put their hands in a circle. They will need to stay connected because they’re already on the back foot in this tournament.

​Wales had the bonus point wrapped up by half-time with a 26-0 lead, and although Ireland improved in the second half, captain Nichola Fryday scoring a try, it also looked like Wales could have inflicted more damage in front of a record crowd of 4,962. There was plenty of talk about the absence of sevens players before this game, but in truth, the platform wasn’t there up front to begin with.

Wales are now the benchmark. It’s well known their set-up was a mess just two years ago, which showed in their 45-0 annihilation by Ireland here in 2021.

But they’ve admirably turned it around and Ireland felt the force of that progression. It’s Wales who are now in pole position for that crucial third-place finish — at least — and progress into the top tier of the new WXV global competition later this year.

There were plenty of unknowns coming into this game, but there were also some known knowns, including that Wales’ weapon of choice is their driving maul. But there’s one thing knowing it’s coming, and another knowing how to stop it. And Ireland couldn’t cope with it in the first half as Wales used it to devastating effect.

An early indicator of the Welsh power came after two minutes when the home side won a scrum on an Ireland put-in. An immediate red flag. The resulting lineout maul saw flanker Alex Callender crash over. Their third try also came from a lineout maul, which Ireland just couldn’t counter.

​It’s hard to remember a time when an Irish women’s team were so overpowered by Wales. The sight of players like Linda Djougang being shunted back by Kelsey Jones after 28 minutes showed it wasn’t just the inexperienced players who were finding this Wales team a different proposition. Ireland struggled to get any go-forward ball in the first half. There were no entry points because Wales simply shut them out.

The other known known coming into this game was club cohesion. Not only do all of Wales starting 15 play in the English Premier 15s, but, like Leinster being the bulk provider for the Ireland men’s team, seven of Wales starting team play with Gloucester-Hartpury, who are second in the table.

Wales centre partnership of captain Hannah Jones and Kerin Lake play club rugby together. And that connection was clear in their bonus-point fourth try when Lake cut through Ireland’s defence to pass to Jones to score. This game underlined the value of the Prem 15s, which is operating at a whole different level compared to the club game in Ireland.

The start of the second half gave no relief. The last thing Ireland needed was to lose a player, but that happened when the versatile Deirbhile Nic a Bháird — who had just replaced Maeve Óg O’Leary — was yellow-carded. Nic a Bháird would go on to have an impressive impact and is deserving of a starting place next week.

wWales immediately made the most of their player advantage when the outstanding prop Sisilia Tuipulotu bulldozed over for Wales’ fifth try.

Her cousins, the Vunipola brothers, and Taulupe Faletau should be rightly impressed.

​Tuipulotu is a talent who’s long been mapped. The decision to start an 18-year-old debutante prop against her is one that came back to haunt the Ireland management and a risk that should have been flagged. Sadhbh McGrath, who did help win a scrum before half-time, will learn a lot from this encounter.

Another known known before this game was how further along Wales are in their journey. They made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup last October, while Ireland haven’t played together since last August in Japan.

Fourteen of Wales starting 15 yesterday are on full-time WRU contracts. Eight of the starting Irish team are on IRFU contracts.

There was also the gap in caps. While Wales had 408 caps in their starting team, Ireland had 164. In the 23-player match-day squads, Wales boasted 630 caps, Ireland had 196.

​This level of disparity in experience was always going to reveal itself on the pitch.

It doesn’t get easier for Ireland. Next up are World Cup semi-finalists France in Musgrave Park on Saturday (2.15). France are going through their own transition post-World Cup, including player retirements and injury. But their definition of transition is different to Ireland’s.

It will take a few days for the players to shake off this defeat. In truth, while no one seemed quite sure where Ireland stood going into this Women’s Six Nations opener, the signs this could be a struggle were staring us in the face.